“Why on EARTH would you want to hike in the mountains all by yourself?” Though far from the words of encouragement I am hoping for, my mom does make a fair point. Why DO I want to hike at least a good part of the GR 738: Haute Traversée de Belledonne solo?
I mumble something about the need to leave my comfort zone after cocooning during the pandemic, but I suspect it is my fear of hiking and camping alone I really want to confront.
As I swing my pack over my shoulder and say my goodbyes, I attempt to look confident, though in reality, I am terrified. What if certain stretches of the trail are too technical? What if there is still too much snow? What if a storm erupts when I am on a ridge? What if the guy I asked for advice in that Facebook group was right and I can’t handle the brutal changes in elevation?
Secretly, I pray for an excuse to pop up, anything that will allow me to bail. But no such excuse presents itself, so off to the French Alps I go.
Un orage exceptionnel
The thunder makes my AirBnB in Aiguebelle shake at night, which does not ease my anxiety. A little note on the breakfast table in the morning does, however: “Chère Lien, if it may reassure you, last night's storm was truly exceptional. We are sure everything will be just fine.”
As I make my way out of town, clouds dance around the peaks surrounding me. The abandoned Fort de Montgilbert – built around 1880 to keep an eye on the valley – looks eerie in the mist, encouraging me not to linger.
Forest trails take me up and down hills all day until I reach the Baraque a Michel, an unguarded shelter in the woods, featuring nothing more than a wooden table and a tiny window that barely lets in any light.
The predicted storm could hit soon. As I weigh my options, the sound of someone slamming on the brakes makes me look up. A man and his mountain bike are staring right back at me: “Will you sleep here tonight?” There it is, the number one question feared by most female hikers, closely followed by “Are you out here all alone?”, which just so happens to be his next inquiry.
Debating whether I should make up an imaginary friend, I stutter: “Uhm, I am not sure yet. I will decide later.” Trying to keep a calm demeanour, I nudge him to leave: “Have a good rest of your day!” Luckily, he takes the hint.
To my throbbing calves’ dismay, I gather my things and rush to the next cabin: the Baraque de la Jasse. Just as I have rolled out my sleeping pad and gotten acquainted with the resident mice, the thunderstorm erupts. Hail the size of marbles and violent gusts of wind batter against the thin walls all night. “Anything to not be in my tent right now,” I whisper to myself, as I drift off to sleep.
Eau de chien mouillé
It is still pouring in the morning. Rhododendron-lined trails lead me to the next shelter, where I kick off my shoes and wait for my body to stop shivering.
Setting off alone, one of my biggest doubts was how I would handle challenging circumstances. When hiking with a partner, you do not have the luxury to throw off your pack and wallow in self-pity for hours. You keep it together. When hiking solo, well, you could. I am proud to notice that quitting does not feel like an option, however, even as I wiggle my soggy feet back into wet socks.
The trail is narrow and rocky. The rugged contours in the fog and the sound of the river gushing in the valley make me suspect that the landscape must be stunning on a clear day. When the Refuge des Ferices finally appears around the bend, smoke is already blowing from the chimney.
With another storm lingering, I call it home for the night and greet my roommates: six middle-aged hikers and one soaking wet husky. Over homemade bread, I listen to their stories about how the French are never quite satisfied, while the fire crackles nicely. Damp clothes hanging from every beam and nail in the room are checked impatiently for the first signs of dryness, but to no avail.
One by one, my companions decide to throw in the towel and come back another day when the weather gods have been appeased. Tormented by their animated fantasies about warm showers, soft sofas and comfy sweaters, I retreat to my bunk.
On doit manger bien
As the first sunrays clothe the mountain peaks in orange hues, I shiver in the shade in front of the refuge. “Judging by the white hair on my shoes, I believe your little friend may have used them as her mattress last night,” I confide in the husky’s owner, who chuckles and offers me a cup of fresh mint tea. “At least that gives me a valid excuse for their odour,” I argue.
The fog feels like an old friend accompanying me on my ascent to the umpteenth col hidden from sight, as I set off solo again. But then my luck drastically changes: the clouds lift and a glorious valley appears at my feet. With a stupid grin on my face, I descend so cheerfully I could skip.
Late afternoon, I pitch my tent outside L’Aup Bernard, where a group of friends is sneakily putting up bows and other decorations. “It’s Robert’s 30th birthday tonight,” one of them winks. “You sure didn’t spare any effort,” I applaud them, as a never-ending string of supplies emerges from their packs: a tablecloth, candles and enough food for a three-course meal.
Robert jovially invites me to join the party, so I gladly nibble on crackers dipped in fresh hummus, sample the pasta with truffle pesto, devour a brownie while singing birthday songs and sip some génépi – a local herbal liquor – as a night cap. “The French don't mess around with their meals,” I note. “Ah yes, évidemment, one needs to eat well,” Robert shrugs.
Way past hiker midnight, I crawl into my sleeping bag with a full belly and a big smile on my face. The trail may challenge, but it surely also provides. Turns out 65 kilometres is just enough to make my pre-departure fears feel like a million miles away.
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